History Don’t Do Cameras

Ever since the loss of our babysitter to the warmer climes of Arizona, Bo and I have lost all chances of a “night out.” (For the record, we did try three other babysitters, but those, um, didn’t exactly work out.) We have managed a few outings in the daylight hours, however, thanks to relatives willing to watch Blondie and the twins. That’s how we got to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* and tour the Pabst Mansion.

Why the Pabst Mansion? Bo and I aren’t beer connoisseurs. I can’t fathom whatever’s brewed under the current Pabst label is anything like the Pabst beer brewed in the 1800s.

250-history-bookWell, back when I was working on that old WIP (the one with Dorjan), I struggled with details for the primary setting of the story. I found my inspiration in a photography collection of the Pabst Mansion: rich, yet not obscenely so. Large, but not unwieldy. Down to earth and still elegant.

Now that Bo has become a stronger ally in my writing life, I asked if he wanted to go with me to the Pabst sometime. I wanted to see the history with my own eyes, breathe its air and touch its remnants. Bo thought for a moment, then got on the phone with Grandma Varinski to watch the kids. He had originally proposed an afternoon at the art museum (Yes, Milwaukee has one), so this seemed an acceptable alternative.

Acceptable indeed. I didn’t know Captain Pabst had been such an avid art collector. Work spanning back to the 1600s hung inside the mansion walls…

But I get ahead of myself.

We arrived on yet another cloudy day. Winter left behind its zombie ice-crusts along the roadside: too damn tough to melt. Despite standing on a major thoroughfare, Bo needed me to guide him to the mansion. Marquette University dominates this stretch of Wisconsin Avenue, making it easy to look at an old building and think it the school’s.

We step into what looks like a chapel to await the tour.

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I look upon the walls and windows…and get depressed.

What has happened to this place? Why’s it being held together by packing tape and pint glasses?

Worst of all, I have to pee. I hate having to pee while stuck in sweater tights.

So of course I had to ask the only male staff person about a bathroom. “Yes, if you’ll follow me.” He walked towards a door…into the mansion.

Weeeeee, I was getting in early!

Were one to be shrunk and escorted inside the Fairy Queen’s pixie dust tree, then one would know what it felt like to leave the decaying chapel and enter the mansion. It’s not that everything was all glittery or jewel-encrusted or such. It was the color: the warmth in the woodwork, the landscapes painted above the doors, the touch of gold and iron in all the right places. I cupped my phone in my hand, eager to snap some early photos before the tour–

–only my escort stuck with me all the way to the mansion’s bathroom and back.

Damn.

The tour began with an older women who sounded like she’d smoked through her formative years but had quit a while ago. She explained that we were actually in the beer pavilion Captain Pabst had commissioned for the World’s Fair in 1893. It was rebuilt as a sort of sun-room for the mansion. Then, when the Archdiocese of Milwaukee took up residence in the Mansion in the early 1900s, it was converted into a chapel. Once the Catholic Church sold the Pabst property in the 1970s, much of the mansion had, like this chapel, fallen into disrepair. All restorations are funded through donations–and tours–and they try to work room by room. So far, they had the first two floors done. We would see them, and the work being done on the third floor.

I was practically hopping at Bo’s side. I couldn’t stop grinning. I had nearly emptied my phone of all precious moments of children doing childreny things to get as many shots as possible–

“No pictures, please.”

DAMMIT!

So, um…I don’t have pictures from inside the mansion proper.

But I do have some photos scrounged up from the Internet!

Oddly enough, the Pabst’s website used to have a sampling of the photos taken for their book. Why they took them down I don’t know; they provided some closeups of the amazing woodwork as well as a few rooms.

Entering the third floor was like stepping into a whole new building. The Catholics had plastered this sad, generic whitewash over the walls and altered much of the plumbing in order to “modernize” the house. Granted, many of these changes are merely cosmetic, but it was clear by seeing rooms in the midst or restoration just how long it would take before the mansion was completely restored. I found a great article on OnMilwaukee.com which shared some photos of restoration in process. You can see in that bottom right photo where they’re repainting the original patterns; the bottom left shows stencilwork that had been covered up by the “modern” paint.

The tour covered only the residential portions of the mansion, but I hope to return for one of their special nights of touring the basement and attic, too. Just look at that shot: there’s a story hidden in those depths, I’m sure of it.

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One of main reasons I started this website was to share the imagery of my state and how it inspires me as a writer. I know some of you do this, too–Shehanne Moore has some stunning captures of her beloved Scotland, for example. Why? Because where we come from as writers is also where our characters will come from. Does that mean all my characters will be from Wisconsin? Probably not. But they’re all going to come from some place inside me: from my fears and loathings, loves and joys. They may never smell the air around the Circus World Museum, but they will all be a part of me, just as Wisconsin is a part of me.

The Pabst Mansion, this often-overlooked piece of homeland, inspired the setting for the first story I took seriously as a writer. And to share it with my husband, who still doesn’t like reading my fiction but loves my passion for writing because he loves me, made it all the more beautiful.

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*Last month I conversed with a few of you about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I noted a review that I felt nailed the film’s failures (character development/plot) as well as achievements (that final space battle!). Now mind you, it’s a video made by nerds for nerds, so their sense of humor may not be your thing. But if you don’t mind some goofy sketches and crude language, watch away!

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51 thoughts on “History Don’t Do Cameras

  1. That’s a genuinely fascinating read, Ms Lee. Moreover, the title is sublime, thought provoking also. ‘History Don’t Do Cameras’. A big thing to say, almost a piece of philosophical thought. I could debate the general accuracy of you words, macro wise and then contradict myself with the micro argument. Nice one.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Mr. Steeden! I’m itching to visit more old places in Milwaukee, now–the Pabst brewery, once the largest brewery in the world, was on the verge of collapse for years until someone FINALLY decided to make them townhouses…I think…worth looking into…
      Anyway.
      And yes, I was tempted to correct myself for the title, but then I thought, know what? Nope. Because I DIDN’T GET TO HAVE A CAMERA. I suppose technically the guardians of history were the ones who don’t do cameras, but honestly, I was so wrapped up in studying everything, and poking my nose annoyingly close to things so that the tour guide gave me the stink-eye, that I probably wouldn’t have gotten all the pictures I’d have wanted. If I could I’d just copy all the pictures from the book’s photo collection and share them, they’re just so beautiful.
      Wow, that rambled.
      Um.
      Good morning! 🙂

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    • Thank you! On the one hand, I get that you don’t want people shoving each other for close-ups of the art or woodwork. Plus, you just want people to buy the book, which definitely has way better photos than I could ever take. But then why take the photos down on your own website? That’s what gets me. There’s no real sample of the mansion’s insides on its own site anymore, which just doesn’t make good marketing sense.
      Can you believe they almost bulldozed this place for a Holiday Inn parking lot?!?

      Liked by 1 person

      • They talked about tearing down our old Parliament House, but clearer minds saw the chance to make it another great public building. I’ll do a post on it soon—and photos are allowed.
        As for taking photos inside important buildings. As long as no flash is used, it should not be a problem. Our national art gallery has finally changed their policy, much to my delight.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Looking at the outside of the building I think my piece of sound art ‘March of the Dead’ should have been playing as you walked in. It reminded me of Berry Pomeroy Castle in Devon where I used to live. It is meant to be the most haunted place in England.

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  3. What a lovely place – how quirky and beautiful – and how great that it is being restored:). Thank you for taking us on a tour. Though these days, I do get fed up when told ‘no photos’ – it seems very out of date to me. I look forward to monitoring the progress as you return.

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  4. A wonderful post Jean. I felt I was right there with you. And I am glad you found some pictures. you know me and places. I am a squirreler of them. I always know instinctively if a place is going to be in a book or not….. xxxxxx

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    • Oh yes! There’s another historic mansion-turned-art preserving home somewhere in downtown Milwaukee, but I can’t for the life of me remember its name. I was only there once, and was stunned by its layout: it was only one level, or maybe two, but it sprawled and sprawled with all sorts of curious corridors. I was there with my friend Ben once to watch Hitchcock’s original 39 Steps; whether allowed or not, we managed to just meander about before the film started. I have GOT to find that place again, it’s perfect story material!

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  5. Beautiful excursion, Jean. Many people think that photography in museums should be banned altogether because there is not enough staff to control all the ‘photographers’ who are often annoying and even abusive. It is sad because I would love to take a picture or two. In Louvre, they have no restrictions, but people are mostly reverent and take their pictures without obstructing others view, and don’t use flash. If people were always nice, they would be amazed how much benefits this would give them, and not only in museums 😉

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  6. It’s sad when historical sites fall into disrepair. But you still got some amazing shots, Jean. Btw, I didn’t know Pabst was a captain. Naval? I’ve been to many of the states, but not WI, so this was very enjoyable 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s the assumption, but no–he was a steamship captain hauling cargo…around the Great Lakes? Believe so. He just loved his title that he insisted on using it forever after. 🙂 Thanks for stopping by my corner of the country!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. My Pabst postcard is even more precious to me after reading about this place! And what fun it was to see the mansion through your eyes. I’m so sorry you didn’t get to take photos, especially after you had emptied your camera (boo! hiss!), but you did a fine, fine job of finding pictures for us to see.

    You MUST return for the attic/basement tour. I wonder if they do it during Halloween? Yes, I couldn’t help wondering like you did if the mansion is haunted. That place seems perfect for a spook or two….hopefully not drunken ones? 😉 XoXO

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    • LOL! I know, right? they do have some special night tours a few times of the year…wonder if Bo wouldn’t mind a spooky date. 😉

      I was there once before, as a little kid, for one of their special Christmas tours. Their decorations are simply gorgeous! And when I found out that one of the mansion floors can be rented for special events, I tugged Bo’s sleeve and said, “If I make it enough to have a book launch party, we are having it here!” He kinda laughed…probably because the price is, I’m sure, obscene. But still, sooooooooooo cool! 🙂 xxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

  8. 1. Hooray for a date!!! Good babysitters are worth more than gold an should probably ask permission before moving away. And then not.
    2. Thanks for the look at an interesting and lovely building! I’d never even heard of it, but it definitely sounds worth a walk-through. (Last historical site we made it to was the Glensheen house in Duluth- it’s supposed to be haunted and the sis-in-law likes those sites. I just like the carved pineapples on the banisters. If I had banisters, they would be pineapple-ed.) Never made it to the Octagon house either, which seems strange looking back. I guess when I was living out there I just didn’t want to spend on the admission? 😉
    3. I watched the Rogue one thingamajigger- (wait, does that make me a nerd???? Hm. I guess I already knew that. First time I taught a Kindergarten lesson using hand puppets and voices I kind of gave up on the “cool” badge 😉 While I don’t entirely agree with their take on the blandness factor, (I liked the main people well enough), the barbed comments about other things- particularly “Squidwort”- made me smile on this gray day.
    4. Thank you also for the latest installment of “Middler’s Pride” – it was fabulous, just like it’s author 🙂 Pooh on it being the Friday installment, and now I have to wait until Wednesday for more…

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    • 1. Ugh, yes. But, BUT, since we seem to be on the cusp with at least Biff and potty training, we’ll probably hold off on hunting for a babysitter until the boys are potty trained. Which, God-willing, will happen before…2027…
      2. Yeah, why didn’t we go to the Octagon House? Were the trips to Shopko really that important? …probably yes. 🙂 Those old biddies better let me use my camera, or so help me…
      3. Oh, those constant cuts to new places drove me CRAZY. I even whispered to Bo, “Isn’t this, like, the 5th beginning to this movie?” I’m willing to cut the characters some slack just because I’m willing to bet all their development was edited and/or re-edited out. Dumb editors.
      4. I’m so glad you’re enjoying Gwen’s story! I’m working on the ending now–or at least trying to in the midst of little boy strep and constipation. Now I’m trying to think ahead, and finding the voice for the next Shield Maiden…oooooh boy…

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  9. Oooh! I’m so glad to hear that you are planning on more! I have all of these ideas niggling around in the back of my mind for things I want to write on my new wip- but the ‘ip’ part of that is probably an exaggeration, since I can’t seem to find time when I’m awake to do anything with it…keep going, mama! You’re a fantastically talented writer! Strep and constipation can’t stop it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hey, my first real WIP sat in my head for, like, three years before I even started writing. You’re awesomely fine.
      And thanks! I told Bo that all I want today is one hour to write. God-willing that’s gonna happen! xxxxx

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